Thirty years ago, Susan Sontag described photography as ‘above all, an affirmation of the subject’s thereness; its rightness’. This ‘thereness’ is pronounced in Annette Kelm’s photography. Her precise, carefully composed, well-lit images, often shot with a large-format camera, luxuriate in surface and clarity of detail while fitting neatly into standard photographic genres: still life, portraiture, landscape. The things they present definitely exist; there is no doubt about that. But something about their ‘rightness’ seems not quite right. As self-evident as her images appear, they are undercut with a strangeness that questions not only the purpose of the objects, but also the nature of their representation.
The ‘thereness’ of Kelm’s photographic subjects is fraught with what Norman Bryson has termed ‘counter-presence’, a strategy of conceptual photography employed by Bernd and Hilla Becher, which he defines as ‘the systematic negation of photography’s classical imperative to reproduce the things of the world’. Although Kelm, who studied in Hamburg and now lives in Berlin, does not engage in the exclusively taxonomical exercise of the Bechers, she does occasionally use serial imagery. In ‘I Love the Little Baby Giant Panda, I’d Welcome One to My Veranda’ (2003), for example, a palm tree is pictured seven times, not exotic against an empty blue sky, but flash-lit at night, fronds swishing in the wind. In ‘Untitled’ (2007), a clock is encased in a handbag, in a series of four photographs shot in line with the conventions of studio advertising against a stark white background, at advertising’s eternal time of ten past ten. The images are essentially identical, except that the clock’s time is a minute later in each. As with the work of Bechers, however, all of this cannot be taken in at a glance. The act of looking at these images is more an act of reading, of searching out the differences among them. Unphotographed seconds pass between one shot and the next, allowing Kelm to bring up photography’s complex relationship with time while simultaneously eluding it, by making pictures that both arrest time and show it passing, if elliptically.
Kelm is attracted to situations in which a certain misalignment occurs, a cultural confusion or temporal conundrum. Objects have mannerist twists that hint at mixed-up origins. In her latest solo show, ‘Vier Jahreszeiten’ (Four Seasons), at Johann König in Berlin in 2007, she displayed images of the now-overgrown farm/folly Marie-Antoinette had built at Versailles; a defunct Wurlitzer organ juxtaposed with a small Joan Miró print; a futuristic silver piano like a 1970s’ Elton John prop; and a series of fabrics by Dorothy Draper, celebrated American interior designer of the 1940s and ’50s. Taken as a group, there was little narrative or formal cohesion to be discovered, but each picture exhibits such fastidiousness that it demands repeated viewings. The unusual details of the subjects represented provoke a chain reaction of questions that disturbs the images’ stillness, rippling their glossy surfaces and threatening to destroy Kelm’s careful compositions by letting loose a windfall of niggling queries. As Bryson described in reference to Sharon Lockhart’s work – which shares with Kelm’s a taut combination of precision and ambiguity – ‘the photograph invites us to squeeze out of each object its quotient of narrative possibility, yet the objects themselves remain strangely ineloquent and evasive’.
The scenes or objects Kelm captures seem laden with an undisclosed narrative significance that strains at the very frames of her images. This may occur through the unusual appearance of the object itself or through a jarring juxtaposition. Frying Pan (2007) is an image of a strange, banjo-like metal instrument, actually the first electric guitar ever made, whose nickname titles the work. It is photographed against a printed fabric that appears to be a hybrid of Bauhaus geometrics and African textile design. (It is, in fact, a contemporary fabric produced in Holland for the African market.) Although the specificity of this information cannot be gleaned from the image alone, the cross-cultural misalignment is apparent within it. An almost performative process of research, orchestration and improvisation seems to have occurred in the production of the work and lurks behind its finality and finish.
Kelm often assigns a sculptural role to the objects she selects, arranging them artificially and alienating them from their functions. At the same time, the textiles she chooses as backdrops refuse to remain in the background, their printed imagery almost inadvertently offering narrative content as well as dizzying formal clashes. In the Draper fabric samples she photographed for the series ‘Big Prints’ (2007), the textiles are liberated from their adaptation as curtains or sofa covers, or even as sculptural backdrops, becoming instead pure, flat design; all surface. This has the strange effect of replacing the tactile fabric with a glossy print, while presenting a perfect reproduction of the original. Seen through the prism of the photographic lens, the textiles seem to adopt a painterly role as two-dimensional surfaces, just as the objects perform the part of sculpture. In Kelm’s hands, photography is not just a documentary tool, but an active, agitating, productive force.